When it comes to urban turnarounds, there is no more challenging environment than upstate New York. The sad litany of former boom cities gone bust due to declining manufacturing and population makes for a sobering list: Buffalo, Utica, Syracuse, Rome, Schenectady, Troy.
Then there is Rochester. A company town hobbled by the decline of Kodak, as well as by residential flight, it for years was included on that list of New York State’s seemingly hopeless urban basket cases. Included, that is, until 1992, when the city elected William A. Johnson Jr.
Johnson, the city’s first African-American mayor and now in his second term, brought to the office a determination to methodically construct an urban revival built on the inclusion of neighborhood and downtown interests, of those concerned about safe streets and those concerned about the high cost of doing business upstate.
“He is the kind of leader that this community had been lacking for a long time,” says Jim Lawrence, editorial page editor for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “Previous mayors were good managers, but Bill brings vision to the job.”
In a town long reliant on one company’s largesse when it came to any kind of civic activism or economic development, part of Johnson’s job was to get all of the city’s interests involved in his turnaround plan. He proved to the business community that he was serious about downtown revival through such projects as the multimillion-dollar renovation of the city’s arena and convention center complex. He proved to the skeptical neighborhood interests that he was serious by giving them a formal seat at the planning and development table. “Under the previous administration, there was really no meaningful communication,” says Hank Herrera, executive director of the Northeast Neighborhood Alliance. “When Mayor Johnson was elected, he immediately came to the neighborhoods and asked what he could do to help.”
The result has been a remarkable show of civic re-engagement, with such on-the-ground evidence of progress as a major food store and commercial complex going up in one of the city’s worst neighborhoods, along with a continuing downtown revival that includes redevelopment of the riverfront. Meanwhile, the mayor has created neighborhood-based city services centers; refurbished community centers and expanded their hours; and established a slew of youth-focused programs aimed both at helping kids stay off the streets and out of trouble, and at helping juveniles who have had a brush with the law to get back on track.
The mayor also is trying to shape those forces outside of his control that directly impact the city’s future. Having no say in how the schools are run, Johnson supported his own slate of school board candidates, a slate now poised to take over. “I figured if I’m going to take the blame for bad schools, I might as well get involved in who’s elected to the board,” Johnson says. And ever so gently, he has been reaching out to neighboring communities and the county to discuss regional economic decline. “We in this region,” says Johnson, “have the most pernicious kind of sprawl: sprawl without growth.”
Even as the city is set to unveil a new comprehensive plan formulated with citywide input, Johnson emphasizes that Rochester’s revival is a work in progress—and even in doubt. “We still have a declining tax base, businesses poised to move out and an aging population tired of seeing their taxes go up,” he points out. But Rochester also now has something else: a vision of revival that Johnson has already helped prove can be made very real.
— Charles Mahtesian
Photo by Ted Rice